First They Came for the Sardines…

The fish held a meeting, and decided to spread the alarm, but it was too late. They were all dead. (Photo by James Palinsad/Flickr)

The fish held a meeting, and decided to spread the alarm, but it was too late. They were all dead. (Photo by James Palinsad/Flickr)

You see the stories here and there, usually in local West Coast papers and on specialized websites. One has a gross picture of a dissolving starfish, another a heart-tugger of a starving sea lion pup. Then there are the stories that have no pictures  because they are about something that isn’t there, such as sardines and krill. Or something that is happening but cannot be watched, like the slow impassive death of oyster beds. It takes a while for it to begin to dawn on you: Holy Crap! Everything on our Pacific Ocean coast seems to be dying!

In yet another tribute to the limitations of expertise and the need for generalists, you seldom find a review of everything that is assaulting the creatures of the western sea. So let us try to step into the vacuum, which we abhor.

  • Starfish. Millions of sea stars have died along the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico in the past two years, afflicted by a pathogen that causes them to get multiple lesions, disintegrate and turn to mush. Fearing extinction, 12 members of Congress are pushing legislation to declare an emergency and fund research. So that should take care of that.
  • Sea Lions. For three years, sea lion pups by the hundreds — more than 1450 so far this year just in California, the worst year on record — have been washing up on shore dead or nearly so, from hunger, disease and parasites.
  • Sardines. The population of Pacific sardines has collapsed. Estimated at 1.5 million metric tons in 2007, the size of the stock has declined by 90%, to just 150,000 metric tons. In a few weeks the Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to ban fishing of sardines until they can recover, although no one thinks overfishing has had anything to do with the decline.
  • Shellfish. Beginning in 2009, shellfish larvae have been dying in stunning numbers of the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Since then other hot spots on both coasts have also been experiencing high shellfish mortality. The industry on the West Coast reports that its revenues are down 70 to 80 per cent.
  • Birds. In the last year, an estimated 50-100 thousand Cassin’s auklets, small divers that feed on krill, have died and washed ashore on West Coast beaches. They showed no evidence of disease or trauma, they simply starved to death. This is the latest in a wave of similar die-off affecting pigeons, pelicans and several other species.
  • Whales. Orca whale pods off British Columbia and Alaska are reported suffering extremely high infant mortality rates — approaching 100% — along with adult deaths and unusual behavior.

Any one of these stories is scary (oddly, very few of them mention any of the others). Put all the stories together and they are terrifying. And terrified minds want to know: what’s doing it? What one thing is the cause of all this, and which magic pill can we take to make it go away?

Unfortunately it never works that way. Contributing causes range from ocean acidification (shellfish) to warmer water (sardines) to altered currents, to pathogens enabled by all the above, to food-source changes caused by all the above. But if you follow each chain of evidence all the way back — what’s warming the water, making it more acid, changing the currents, screwing with the food sources — and you will come hard up against the massive pollution gushing from the smokestacks and sewage pipes of the industrial age.

Once again we meet the enemy. Once again, it’s us.



Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to First They Came for the Sardines…

  1. dlandgren says:

    “Fearing extinction, 12 members of Congress are pushing legislation to declare an emergency and fund research.” For a moment I thought you meant the starfish, but then I realized they must have been thinking about themselves.

  2. Tom says:

    First, my humble thanks for posting my comment to the right of your header.

    Second – this topic is at the root of what is driving the 6th Mass Extinction (the death of the Pacific Ocean, following the death of the Gulf of Mexico) so i want to commend you on your thoughtful timing.

    One factor we always want to mention in connection with our coming demise, is the continuing spread of untold amounts of lethally toxic radiation from Fukushima (and all other sources). It’s too important to ignore. All the plastic in the various gyres around the world aren’t helping anything either, and the methane dissociating off the East Coast (and northward) is becoming a huge problem for the world too.

    According to seemorerocks today (Robin Westenra) it’s a toss up between nuclear war and climate change (killing everything within one generation) being the big step toward extinction right now.

    There are so many aspects and knock-on effects from THIS topic though, that it can be explored in depth and width in the coming days here in the comments section.

    One other thing that is effecting the planet that was just discovered recently is this from Robertscribbler:

    World Ocean Heartbeat Fading? ‘Nasty’ Signs North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation is Weakening

    We’re in deep doo-doo now folks.

    • John Cook says:

      Just about what I wanted to, including other dire signs (like that link) in the ocean. Fukushima has been compleatly vanished. Ask most people and they will assume that everything is ok else we’d hear about it. But that’s not so. The more we Don’t hear about it the more important it is.

  3. Rob Rhodes says:

    We seem to have an extraordinary number of sea lions attending the local herring spawn near where I live in Comox on Vancouver Is. They are barking any time I listen, in every direction and have even come into the sheltered lagoon where I have not seen them before. As I know the Pacific is in general pour health this has led me to wonder if so many are here because it is among their few remaining food sources. Meanwhile some Orcas are making the most of it:

  4. witsendnj says:

    For perspective, it’s important to remember that there is a dieoff in all the bodies of water in the world, not just the Pacific. It’s easy enough to find just as many “isolated” stories about other places – I’ve seen articles about seabirds in Scotland, Puffins in Nova Scotia, manatees in Florida, lobsters in Maine, freshwater fish just about everywhere, oysters in the Chesapeake – this is a global issue, not Fukushima. It’s eutrophication from pollution, warming, acidification, and just wait for the cessation of the great ocean conveyor (video below). In general terms, watch any of Jeremy Jackson’s “Ocean Apocalypse” lectures on youtube, or Farley Mowat’s stupdendous documentary, “Sea of Slaughter” for historic perspective ( ). Thermohaline shutting down:

  5. beckjeremy says:

    And once again, the word Fukushima is not mentioned :-((
    What is it about this extinction event that prevents the utterance of the word?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Nothing here preventing the utterance. I am very much aware of the website you reference and its insistence that Fukushima is approaching an extinction event. It’s just that I have not seen credible evidence that radiation is the cause, or a contributing cause, of these events. If you have any — from other than the continuously hyperventilating — please share.

    • Avery says:

      beckjeremy, are you familiar with the reptilians? many scientists and people you’d consider trustworthy have come out in support of the thesis that world leaders are from another planet…

  6. Harquebus says:

    Fukushima? A Pacific killing disaster.

    “The toxic substances such as Tritium, Cesium, Plutonium and Strontium are being carried everywhere by winds, rain and ocean currents, entering the food chain through seaweed and seafood, building up high levels of toxicity in the fish – and humans – at the top end of the consumption chain.”